Pelosi Poised to Meet Syria's Assad

By Zeina Karam
Associated Press
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 3 -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toured Damascus on Tuesday, the highest-ranking American politician to visit Syria since relations began to deteriorate four years ago. She was scheduled to confer with President Bashar al-Assad and other Syrian officials on Wednesday.

President Bush criticized the trip, saying it sends mixed signals to the Syrian government. The United States accuses Syria of interfering in Iraq and Lebanon and sponsoring terrorists, allegations that Syria denies. The Bush administration has resisted calls to open direct talks with Syria on resolving the countries' disputes.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) made no comment on her arrival and headed for the Old City of Damascus, where she toured the historic Omayyad Mosque.

She draped a scarf over her head as she entered the 8th-century mosque and stopped at a tomb inside said to contain the head of John the Baptist. She made the sign of the cross in front of the tomb. About 10 percent of Syria's 18 million people are Christian.

In Washington, Bush said visits to Syria by U.S. officials are "counterproductive."

"A lot of people have gone to see President Assad . . . and yet we haven't seen action. He hasn't responded," he said at a Rose Garden news conference. He said Assad had not reined in violent elements of the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah and had acted to destabilize the democratically elected government of Lebanon.

Pelosi has shrugged off the criticism, pointing out that Republican members of Congress have also visited Syria.

Pelosi is traveling with a delegation of U.S. lawmakers that includes the first Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). During a visit Monday to neighboring Lebanon, she said she hoped to rebuild confidence between Washington and Damascus.

In Israel, Pelosi said she would tell Syrian leaders that Israel will talk peace with them only if Syria stops supporting Palestinian militants. She has said she will also talk to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in neighboring Lebanon and their support for Lebanon's Hezbollah militants.

Syria treated the visit as a diplomatic victory. State-run newspapers published news of Pelosi's trip on their front pages, with one daily publishing a photograph of Pelosi and the headline: "Welcome Dialogue."

Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, described the visit as a "positive step" but said, "It does not necessarily mean that the Bush administration would suddenly change its position" concerning Syria.

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